The Paradise Lost exhibition of Chris Ofili’s work at David Zwirner gallery is a difficult show to square with my conviction that Chris Ofili is one of the best painters alive. At the Night and Day show at the New Museum a few years ago, I witnessed what he could do with crepuscular shades of blue, making that palette a landscape inhabited by overly stylized figures (they reminded me of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner‘s characters) verging on the brink of abstraction and so convincingly beautiful they held that middle ground between fantasy and truth. And the other figures in the show, in the portraiture work that mythologized blackness, always verged on being too fantastical, yet didn’t look like he was referring to a distant fable, but to people I knew or perhaps had met before. I also saw his paintings in the Upper Room exhibition at Tate Britain in 2005. When I saw these pieces — the monkey portraits decorated with elephant dung and cowrie shells, my first live exposure to Ofili — one of my first thoughts was, he was born to do this, to be a fine art painter.
So given my previous experience, this show is disappointing. The painting here is mostly dead: it consists of a hand-painted mural marked on the walls outside of a caged area. The scenes, most easily viewed from across the room, are of something like an Edenic carnival: portraits rendered in gray scale of larger-than-life women against a tropical backdrop, all printed under the same watermarked pattern of the diamond-arrayed, shiny, chain-link fence that rings the room. Around the entire periphery there’s about six feet of space between the fenced-in area and the gallery wall, so there is room to maneuver, but not much. Within the cage there are four paintings: black and white, densely patterned, abstract images, one of which spells out “ellipsis” on a side border (suggesting a continuation of the story, whatever it is). Others spell out other words I don’t quite grok on their borders. I’m bewildered, but from what I can tell this whole show is a prelapsarian vision seen through the eyes of someone who imagines that an aesthetic world exists from which viewers — if we follow the Judeo-Christian story of initial membership in the Garden of Eden and subsequent expulsion for disobeying the rules — are barred. The installation is designed to limit our visual access to the work; what we see of it, to paraphrase the biblical passage, is through a limited aperture, darkly.
This theme of confinement gets established early. The entrance to the show consists of a large room with a small, wooden cage mounted on a dark metal stand in the middle of it. A small figure carved from wood and colored to resemble a black man with a closely cropped haircut and stubble on his face is in pieces: a head is suspended separately from the torso and arms, separate from the waist and legs, all hung from gold colored chains. I asked the gallery staff whether this figure was intended to represent Ofili and was told it does not. Still, it represents a broken man who is imprisoned and this feels important.
Questions arise: Is this what the artist means to be read as the human condition, that we are forever barred from the Paradise of art? But why? And why would the realm of aesthetic making and contemplation be considered paradisiacal? This idea swims against a tide that has been gathering strength since the post-war period, when artists began to work seriously at shrinking that separation between art (that is aesthetic intervention) and life (the everyday, social relations that describe what this exhibition regards as our supposed purgatory in contrast to a heaven of artistic concerns). Is a sense of guilt the engine of this exhibition? I don’t have full answers, but intuit that there is a self-pitying quality to this, as if the artist were saying that this is the true nature of the interaction with the art object for both maker and viewer: the artist makes something that is untouchable, and the object teases the viewer with its proximity, but never discloses its secrets.
As much as I don’t fully grasp this exhibition, I appreciate Ofili’s willingness to take risks. His painting is truly protean and willing to fail. There are several artists in the contemporary pantheon who can be counted on to deliver much the same work they have been delivering for years (even decades) so I’m deeply appreciative that Ofili continues to shift the way he works and the kinds of images he produces.
Still, the idea of paradise is philosophically dangerous — it makes us imagine ourselves flawed descendants, groveling for a past version of ourselves that was perfect (but never actually existed). The aesthetic prize here is made unattainable in the way that the mythological original garden, and our supposed state of perfection is: both can only ever be considered through the notion of fallen humanity (thanks to St. Augustine for that poison pill ). In a way we are forever relegated to the outskirts of paradise if we buy this notion of who we are: fatally flawed, sinful, inheritors of someone else’s mistake, always at least arm’s length from paradise, at least until orgasm brings it within touching distance.
This show feels religious in that self-abnegation way. It’s about denial of pleasure. It withholds the visual sumptuousness Ofili knows how to concoct and gives the viewer some rather bitter dregs to drink: the lesson that we make our own cages and our own heaven.